Something about the scene struck me as completely incongruous. The members of the second Am Echad delegation – a group of concerned American Jews representing a wide spectrum of American Orthodoxy – were gathered at the Knesset to exchange views with Knesset members from a number of parties.
At some point, Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen, a pony-tailed, former IDF helicopter pilot, who served as an unlikely representative of the Russian party, Israel Beitainu arrived late. He entered in a state of high agitation. “I just learned that the Muslim Waqf is destroying Har HaBayis,” he told us. He went on to describe how heavy bulldozers were being used to transform an underground area known as Solomon’s Stables into a new mosque. The dirt being removed by massive bulldozers from the site – tons of it – was being dumped into the Kidron Valley.
The secular “Cheetah” described all this with much pain and anguish in his voice. While those of us who direct our hearts three times each day towards HaKodesh HaKodoshim absorbed what he was telling us with a calm demeanor and occasional sympathetic tongue clucking. Thus the incongruity.
The memory of that meeting returned recently with the announcement that the Waqf is engaging in another major project on Har Habayis. This time it is digging a 1300 foot trench over 1/12 meters deep, again using bulldozers and heavy machinery. All this has been done with the permission of Prime Minister Olmert.
Though under Israeli law, such digging at archaeological sites is supposed to be supervised by trained archaeologists, and heavy equipment cannot be used, the Antiquities Authority has completely abandoned any responsibility for supervising the Waqf’s digging. By way of comparison, in a certain neighborhood of Beit Shean residents are prohibited from so much as putting a hoe into the ground lest they injure some Roman antiquities.
According to reports of archaeologists who have viewed the site of the new trench, the bulldozers hit what may have been a foundation wall of the Ezras Nashim in the Beis HaMikdash. What might well have beenthe first wall of the Beis HaMikdash exposed since the Churban has now been pulverized.
Nor is this the first time that important remains of the Temple have lost due to the absolute disregard of the Waqf for the Jewish treasures buried on Har HaBayis. In the course of the 1999 construction over 6,000 tons of dirt from Har HaBayis was dumped unceremoniously in the Kidron Valley. Israeli archaeologists sifting through the rubble discovered a meter-long stone fragment that likely came from one of the entrances to the Beis HaMikdash. One archaeologist described the fragment, at the time, as “the most important artifact ever discovered on Har HaBayis.”
Two years later, the Waqf began digging a long underground tunnel from the Al Aksa Mosque above the Hulda Gate towards Solomon’s Stables. This time 1500 tons of material were dumped into the Kidron Valley. An Israeli graduate student, Tzachi Zweig, who combed through the site found thousands of artifacts going back to the time of the Bais HaMikdash.
To say that the Waqf has conducted these massive construction projects with disregard for the treasures from the Temple period that might be lost or destroyed is an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that one of the purposes of these projects has been to destroy the evidence of the Jewish connection to our holiest site.
At Camp David in the summer of 2000, Yasir Arafat assured an astounded President Clinton that the Bais HaMikdash never stood on Har HaBayis. That claim has been frequently repeated by the Palestinian media and leaders. And it is central to the Palestinian narrative that Jews are recent colonizers in Eretz Yisrael, with no historical connection to the Land. Destroying evidence of the Beis HaMikdash serves that absurd narrative.
But Arafat revealed a more subtle intent at Camp David as well, with his insistence that Israel cede sovereignty over Har HaBayis to the Palestinians. He wanted to force Israeli leaders to admit that Judaism’s holiest site is more important to Moslems than it is to Israeli Jews, despite the fact that it is nowhere mentioned in the Koran and for centuries Jerusalem was a neglected backwater in the Ottoman Empire. Between 1948 and 1967 no Arab leader even visited Har HaBayis except for King Abdullah I of Jordan. Yet imagine the riots that would take place around the world today were Israel to attempt to limit Waqf building on Har HaBayis.
By forcing such a tacit admission, Arafat knew, he would sever one more cord binding secular Israelis to their past and their Land. And by so doing, he would weaken their resolve in the face of Palestinian efforts to evict them from the Land.
To a large extent, Arafat succeeded. The major building projects on Har HaBayis in 1999, 2001, and today were all undertaken with the approval or tacit support of the Israeli government and engendered little public protest. Today the outcry of a few archaeologists has barely evoked a yawn in the Israeli media. That apathy attests to how little importance most secular Israelis attach to Har Habayis.
BUT SECULAR ISRAELIS are not the only ones to remain apathetic. The story of the new tunnel and the possible destruction of a wall from the Beis HaMikdash have barely made a ripple in the chareidi press. That’s what got me thinking about Cheetah again.
The phenomenon of chareidi apathy obviously cannot be explained in the same terms as that of secular Israelis. It does not derive from any lack of connection to the Land or Jewish history.
In part, perhaps, the Torah world did not respond to the alarms sounded by a handful of archaeologists because of the long-standing antagonism between the Torah community and the archaeologists. The solution from the perspective of the Torah community is not for Jewish archaeologists to go up to Har HaBayis to supervise the Waqf’s construction projects. It is easier to avoid thinking about the Waqf’s desecrations than to find a solution.
But there may be more to it than that. To some extent, we have so etherealized the Bayis HaMikdash and Har HaBayis that we have forgotten that they are real places, not just concepts, and that the Bais HaMikdash really stood on Har HaBayis.
The Gemara at the end of Makkos (24b) relates that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariyah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva approached Har HaBayis after the Churban. They saw a fox go out of the place where the Kadosh HaKadoshim once stood. They cried; Rabbi Akiva laughed. Rabbi Akiva asked them why they cried, and they answered, “Of this place it was said, “A non-kohen who enteres will die,” and now foxes walk through it. Should we not cry?”
Today we witness far worse things than foxes walking through the ruins of the Kadosh HaKadoshim. But we have lost the ability to either laugh or cry. We just don’t care.
This article appeared in Mishpacha on 19th September